Here is the first of four essays that explore people of note in the history of health whose graves can be found at Plymouth’s Ford Park Cemetery.
Dr Mabel Ramsay (1878-1954) was Plymouth’s first female surgeon. During her career she fought prejudice and campaigned for equality in medicine.
Her father was a Paymaster in the Navy. After a spell in Malta, he was posted to Plymouth.
Whilst in temporary accommodation in Tavistock, Mabel contacted whooping cough. The treatment for this involved her making a daily visit to the gasworks to breathe in their fumes. Luckily her mother ignored the advice offered by a local fishwife who suggested that Mrs Ramsay bought a live plaice and tie it to Mabel’s chest. By the time the fish rotted, the cough would be cured! Oh dear!
Mabel studied medicine at Edinburgh University graduating in 1906 at the age of 28. Two years later she and her widowed mother returned to Plymouth and Mabel set up a general practice surgery.
Soon after she was approached by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies to establish a branch in Plymouth. She did so and subsequently became the honorary secretary.
In September 1914, Dr Ramsay was accepted as a Red Cross surgeon to serve in Belgium and France with the Women’s Imperial Unit. She admitted later that the desire to help wounded soldiers was not her only motive, she also saw it as an opportunity to gain experience towards her ultimate aim of becoming a surgeon.
During the Allied retreat from Belgium she displayed great courage and commitment – continuing to care for the wounded whilst coming under enemy shellfire. She was awarded the Mons Star and Bar for her bravery.
Her aim to become a surgeon was far from straightforward at the time. To practise surgery, you had to be a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, but only men were eligible to sit the entrance exam.
However, Lady Astor promoted the Sex Disqualification Bill soon after taking her seat in Westminster. This gave Mabel the opportunity she needed and she became only the third female Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.
She went on to be appointed surgeon-gynaecologist at Plymouth City Hospital, the first woman in the West of England to hold such a position.
During her life she was also the founder member of the Plymouth branch of the Soroptimists (the largest women’s service organisation in the world), and the first female President of the Plymouth Medical Society.
Dr Ramsay died in 1954 at the age of 76 whilst attending a medical women’s conference.
A blue plaque dedicated to her can be seen at 4 Wentworth Villas, North Hill, now part of Bowden Hall.
The plaque was funded by family members, the Plymouth Medical Society and the Soroptimists and installed by kind permission of Romdale Properties.